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  • Improving Reading Skills by Encouraging Children to Read in School: A Randomized Evaluation of the Sa Aklat Sisikat Reading Program

    in the Philippines1

    July 2013

    Ama Baafra Abeberese (Wellesley College)

    Todd J. Kumler

    (Columbia University)

    Leigh L. Linden (The University of Texas at Austin, BREAD, IZA, J-PAL, NBER)

    Abstract: We show that a short-term (31 day) reading program, designed to provide age-appropriate reading material, to train teachers in their use, and to support teachers initial efforts for about a month improves students reading skills by 0.13 standard deviations. The effect is still present three months after the program but diminishes to 0.06 standard deviations, probably due to a reduced emphasis on reading after the program. We find that the program also encourages students to read more on their own at home. We find no evidence that improved reading ability improves test scores on other subjects. JEL Codes: I21, I28, O15 Key Words: Education, Reading, RCT, Development

    1 We are indebted to many individuals involved with the experiment. We wish to thank Catherine S. Alcaraz, Marie Angeles, Coly Los Baos, Clarissa Isabelle Delgado, Margarita L Delgado, Norlyn Gregorio, Elizabeth E. Zobel and all of the other staff members of the Sa Aklat Siskat Foundation for their support and assistance during the evaluation. All surveys were conducted by TNS Philippines. Finally, we are grateful to an anonymous donor for generously agreeing to fund this research effort. Without his or her help, this project would not have been possible. Leigh L. Linden is the corresponding author. Please direct all correspondence to

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    I. Introduction

    Seven hundred and seventy-five million adults cannot read (UIS, 2011). The poor quality of

    public schools in developing countries is a major factor. However, our limited understanding of

    the education production function hinders attempts to ameliorate their conditions. We know

    providing resources without other inputs rarely improves student performance. We know

    resources can affect improvements when paired with a larger array of inputs (Glewwe and

    Kremer, 2006). We do not know which inputs are necessary. For reading in particular, studies

    have demonstrated the effectiveness of large comprehensive changes. Banerjee et al. (2007),

    which studies an Indian remedial education program, is a good example. The intervention causes

    students reading skills to improve, but because the intervention changes the educational

    environment along multiple dimensionsadditional teachers, new pedagogical methods, new

    curriculum, changes to organization of the classroom, and additional resourceswe cannot

    identify which components cause the improvements.

    We approach this challenge by assessing the causal effects of a reading program that

    changes childrens educational experience along a single dimension common to more

    comprehensive reading programs: getting children to actively read age-appropriate books at

    school. Schools rarely encourage children to read. Curricula do not emphasize it, and most

    schools even lack age-appropriate reading material. Comprehensive reading programs encourage

    children to read during the school day by providing age-appropriate reading material, segregating

    time for reading, group reading, reading-based classroom games and other pedagogical changes

    designed to get teachers to read books with students.2 To better understand the mechanisms

    2 As part of larger programs, this might be combined with professional development for teachers, the creation of new infrastructure such as school libraries, student reading assessment techniques, changes in personnel (such as the addition of a reading instruction coordinator or additional instructors), and often the use of new technologies that provide more functionality than traditional books (eReaders, tablets, or even computer assisted instruction).

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    through which the larger programs operate, we assess a program that only provides teachers with

    new materials and trains teachers to use them.

    Using a randomized controlled trial set in Tarlac province of the Philippines, we analyze

    the causal impact of the Sa Aklat Sisikat (SAS) reading program for fourth graders. The program

    provides age-appropriate reading material, trains teachers to incorporate reading into their

    curriculum, and supports these changes through a 31-day reading marathon, during which SAS

    supports teachers as they encourage students to read. We randomly assigned, by school, 5,510

    fourth-grade students in 100 schools to receive the intervention following a baseline assessment

    of students reading skills at the start of the academic year. We then administered two follow-up

    surveys: after all of the marathons were complete (four months after baseline) and at the end of

    the academic year (seven months after baseline).

    Simply enabling and encouraging students to read age-appropriate books in school

    quickly creates meaningful improvements in reading skills. On average, reading scores increased

    by 0.13 standard deviations by the end of the marathons. However, while the effects did persist,

    scores declined by 54 percent over the next three months. This suggests that providing resources

    and training alone is a viable short-term strategy for meaningfully improving childrens reading

    skills, but by themselves they are insufficient to sustain those improvements.

    The fade-out may have been due to teachers deemphasizing reading. During the

    marathons, the implementing NGO ensured that teachers provided time for reading, but while the

    teachers retained all of the materials after the program ended, they also regained control over the

    amount of time dedicated to the subject. Consistent with this hypothesis, we find the program

    increased the number of books children read in school in the last month by 7.17 during the

    marathon period, but by 56 percent less at the second follow-up. In fact, if we use the number of

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    books read in the last month as a proxy for teachers emphasis on in-school reading, the local

    average treatment effect (LATE) estimates of the change in standard deviations per book read is

    the same in both periods. This suggests that time spent on reading in school was equally effective

    in both periods, but test scores declined because the time declined after the first survey. To

    sustain long-term gains, interventions like the read-a-thon may need to be paired with other

    components designed to support a long-term focus on reading, such as administrative and

    professional development interventions.

    Finally, researchers often prioritized reading, hoping that better reading skills will equip

    children to learn other subjects and encourage them to read outside of school. We assess the first

    hypothesis by testing children in math and social studies, but we find no effect for either subject.

    However, we do find that in-school reading encourages children to read outside of school. For

    example, treatment children read 1.24 and 0.89 more books in the last month at the first and

    second follow-up surveys.

    The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. Section II provides an overview of

    the intervention. We describe the research design in Section III. Section IV documents the

    internal validity of the study, and in Section V, we estimate the effects of the treatment. We

    compare the results to those of other studies of reading programs in Section VI. Finally, we

    conclude in Section VII.

    II. The Sa Aklat Sisikat Read-A-Thon

    The reading program evaluated in this study is a core program of Sa Aklat Sisikat,3 a non-profit

    organization located in Manila dedicated to building a nation of readers. Since its inception in

    1999, SAS has implemented its reading program in every province in the Philippines, reaching 3 Sa Aklat Sisikat loosely translates as books make you cool.

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    over 750 public schools and nearly 150,000 students. The program comprises three

    componentsproviding schools with a set of age-appropriate books, training teachers to

    incorporate reading in the curriculum, and through a 31 day read-a-thon, encouraging children

    to read and supporting teachers as they incorporate reading into their classes. The program

    targets fourth grade students because the school system expects students to have developed

    sufficient reading fluency to enjoy independent reading by the fourth grade.4

    Because most public schools lack age-appropriate reading material,5 SAS donates 60

    Filipino storybooks to each classroom. The books are selected for literary value as well as

    student appeal. They also include in both of the countrys official languages, English and

    Filipino, so that teachers can match the language of instruction.6

    Prior to receiving the materials, teachers from each school attend a two-day training

    session in which they learn to implement the read-a-thon and receive ideas for reading lessons

    that incorporate reading in an engaging way. For 31 days after the training, they implement the

    read-a-thon. During this period, the students and teachers use the donated storybooks in hour-

    long daily reading sessions that include activities such as dramatic storytelling, literary games,

    and individual silent reading. Students are encouraged to read as